Simon Phage is known for his operational ingenuity in working with large corporations. We talk to the new Oakhurst Insurance CEO about breaking down silos and empowering people.
Simon Phage is what many in the industry would refer to as a fixer, and not intentionally so. He just has a knack for transforming stagnant companies into success stories and making great companies even better. It seems to stem from a gift of unclouded perspective. From this vantage point he’s able to identify the workings of a company and how each of these mechanisms makes the company tick – almost like a watchmaker looking to see if the piece runs on time and then investigating the little cogs and wheels that enable it to do so.
“I approach each position as if I were running my own business,” he says. “The minute you do this, you are forced to question everything about the business and understand fully how it runs. It also enables you to see more clearly what may happen five years down the line.”
It was in his position as sales manager at South African Breweries (SAB) that he realised the benefits of breaking down the silo operational structure and adopting a “generalist” approach, as he calls it.
“When I deal with a team, I help where I can,” he says.
Following a candid conversation with his then boss “… who hated specialisation”, he stepped down from his position and volunteered for operations training.
“I realised I was a specialist and needed to learn about the operational side of business,” he explains.
Phage finished the year-long course in nine months and was appointed Soweto district manager at SAB, from where he advanced to other more senior positions within the company.
“You don’t run a business from behind a desk,” says Phage. “Everyone in the company has to know exactly what’s happening on the ground, and that goes for the executives as well. I don’t simply leave it to the client-facing employees to see clients. It’s in knowing what happens at ground level that you start realising where the glitches lie.”
Phage did what he calls his “national duty” at South African Airways. He held numerous positions during his two years at the national airline, turning around the departments he led, where many of his teams’ sales records still stand. During his tenure, it was voted the best airline in South Africa, the rest of Africa and best international airline. That’s when he says he felt his national duty was done. Since leaving SAA he’s held executive positions at Otis Elevators, Telesure, Unity Motor and Household Insurance, Uniglobe Travel Agency Group, Wings Corporate Travel, Wings Naledi Corporate Travel, African Independent Brokers, and now Oakhurst Insurance.
“It’s not all gung-ho and guns blazing when walking into the CEO role,” Phage says. “It takes time to understand the business and determine what motivates staff to perform. Once you have established this, it enables you to see the gaps in the processes.”
Phage says it’s key to surround yourself with a strong and capable team. “The first thing I do when entering a new company is establish the quality of leadership in order to get the right people in the right seats before determining the destination,” he says. “Empowered people get results. If people understand exactly what their accountabilities are, they will take it upon themselves to run the operation.
“I’m lucky to be blessed with phenomenal people and a great culture within Oakhurst Insurance.”
The CEO asks of each of the Oakhurst team members to don their thinking caps when coming to the office each morning, as “… you want people to come in and look for ways to improve and encourage others,” he says. “If you treat people this way, you can help them realise how important their job is in the greater scheme of things.”
Phage uses the example of a cleaner at NASA, whose job isn’t simply to sweep and clean but to help people reach the moon.
One of the core Oakhurst Insurance values is to focus on client and partner relationships.
“Our market approach is through brokers and partnerships and we make it our duty to understand their business objectives and strategic direction,” he says. “In doing so, we become part of the solution by looking for opportunities that will add value.”
The insurer has evolved to be more than just a personal lines provider, he stresses. Through engagement with partners and being attuned to employee input, the Oakhurst team has been at the forefront of using technology and developing innovative tech-driven offerings to match the evolving needs of the market. The insurer’s drone insurance, for instance, caters to a part of the market that few others have even looked at.
“Oakhurst was a pioneer in the introduction of telematics,” says Phage. “Tech is an ongoing focus for us. We recently introduced a chatbot, which is improving service levels and saving costs savings across the board.”
There will, of course, always be a need for face-to-face broker engagement, says Phage, specifically with complex policies. The chatbot caters to another part of the market, including clients who wish to tend to their personal insurance matters after hours.
“We continue to focus on our brokers, driven by our sophisticated broker portal that assists brokers in reviewing a client’s portfolio and schedule, among other tasks,” he says. “We are in the position to identify an opportunity and look for a solution,” he says, and praises his dynamic team for making this agile development of new products. “Empowered people improve their environment and come up with solutions that will put the company rst,” says Phage.
The first thing he did when stepping into the CEO role at Oakhurst Insurance was to make it clear to the team where he sees the company at present, where he wants it to be in the next few years, and what it will take to get there.
“Continuous improvement is part of our DNA,” he says. “So, in the next five years I would like Oakhurst to be the leading insurer in its identified niches, by any measure.”